YANGON, Myanmar, Nov. 19 (UPI) -- As Myanmar opens to foreign investment and development, the country's forests face increasing challenges, experts say.
The Myanmar government announced in October that it plans to ban the export of timber beginning April 1, 2014, in an effort to save its forests.
Barack Obama's visit Monday to the former military state marks the first trip to Myanmar by a U.S. president. While no specific deals were announced, the Obama administration's easing of sanctions on Myanmar is expected to spur investment in the resource-rich country.
In the 2010-11 fiscal year, Myanmar -- one of the world's biggest exporters of teak -- earned more than $600 million for exports of 864,000 metric tons of timber, says the country's Central Statistical Organization, with India the largest market.
But a European Forest Institute study notes that although timber shipped from Yangon bears a stamp of approval from state-owned Myanmar Timber Enterprise, the materials could have been illegally cut and transported.
And there are conflicting reports on the amount of forest remaining in Myanmar. Separate studies within the last year -- by the United Nations and Science magazine -- reported forest cover at 46-48 percent of the country's land mass. In August, however, the government's Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation Committee Secretary Thein Lwin said it was 24 percent.
Yangon's Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association says Myanmar's on-going unsustainable forestry, mining, agricultural and fishing practices is resulting in environmental degradation and direct biodiversity loss.
"People whose livelihoods depend most on natural resources are affected by the effects of deforestation -- floods, droughts and landslides -- and are more vulnerable to natural disasters," the association says in a report in The Irrawaddy.
A 2009 U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization report said about 70 percent of the country's total rural population of at least 30 million "depend heavily on forests for their basic needs" and 500,000 people rely on forests for employment.
During his March 2011 inaugural speech, Myanmar President Thein Sein pledged to "pay serious attention" to the conservation of forests and to install a policy to help the underfunded environmental sector, adding that "we will work for economic development in parallel with environmental conservation."
"The sooner the international community can help Myanmar's government and civil society figure out how to implement a sustainable approach to resource management, the better," Jack Hurd, deputy managing director for the Nature Conservancy's Asia-Pacific program was quoted as saying by YALE e360.